Saturday, July 11, 2015

how (not) to be secular

I just finished a most enlightening and penetrating book on the nature of secularism -- what it is and how we got here.  It is James K. A. Smith's How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Eerdmans, 2014).  Charles Taylor is author of the magisterial volume, A Secular Age, and Smith is making him accessible for folks like me, a sort of Cliff's Notes on Charles Taylor's book.  

Very, very helpful!  Here are some highlights to whet your interest... 

"Our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence." 

"Most of us live in this cross-pressured space, where both our agnosticism and our devotion are mutually haunted and haunting..."

"But although we are more informed [than our ancestors], we are no more evolved, and certainly no more intelligent than them. What convinces us our knowledge is so final?" (Taylor)

"Ardor and devotion cannot undo the shift in plausibility structures that characterizes our age."

"I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing."

"So the shift to a secular age not only makes exclusive humanism a live option for us, it also changes religious communities. We’re all secular now."

"It wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to be able to imagine significance within an immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence."

"Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally."

"The premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also 'healable'). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace."

"The modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority..."

"Because eternity is eclipsed, the this-worldly is amplified and threatens to swallow all."

"And so the 'god' that governs the cosmos is the architect of an impersonal order. In short, we’re all Masons now."

"We might describe this as 'deistic' religion — if it didn’t look like so much contemporary Protestantism."

"Sealed off from enchantment, the modern buffered self is also sealed off from significance, left to ruminate in a stew of its own ennui... Our insulation breeds a sense of cosmic isolation."

"Inscrutability is no longer an option; so if believers have no rationally demonstrative answer, but can only appeal to something like the 'hidden' will of God, then the scales tip in favor of what we know and understand."

"But in fact, their conversion to unbelief was also a conversion to a new faith: 'faith in science’s ability' ... Such conversions are conversions to a new authority, not the assumption of intellectual independence."

"The expressivist forges her own religion ('spirituality'), her own, personal Jesus." 

"Nothing is given or axiomatic anymore, so one has to 'find' one’s faith."

"In the name of securing our freedom, we swap submission to the priest for submission to the therapist."

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